Age: 15, Grade: 9
School Name: Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Yael Schick
Category: Short Story
The Left Behind Children
I’m still trying to get used to the damp stickiness that clings onto my arms and dew drops that rolls down slick walls in the morning. Even years after moving here, I still expect the winter time to bring the pinkness of swelling beneath my nail beds, the painful flaking of skin. The absence of ‘wind-colds’ is still oddly out of place, ones that smear red rashes on browned cheeks and calls for chicken bone broth with the biting tang of ginger. Instead the humidity clings fast, climbing up the walls like stubborn vines and breathes hot air through open windows from where I work.
The vegetables in the pot curl into different shapes in the dancing water. My practiced hands moved fast, doing the same thing as they had always done, so dinner was ready before the frantic noise of the doorbell pressed by playful hands over and over again marks the return of Miss Sun’s kids from school, and in a different world, before the weak stuttering of fire on the stove was a telltale sign of the gas running out.
The mop pushes across the floor, leaving soapy wet streaks that dry off fast, disappearing into the hardwood, a stroke of watercolor in reverse. It was Ling Ling’s job even before it was mine. Her head barely reaching the top of the handle as she pushed the mop on her tippy toes, She wasn’t very good at it then, a thousand distractions coming her way as she made silly faces at Han Han, only an infant then. She lept and glided across the floor with the mop, toes pointed, poised fingers held onto the handle, hovering, strangely elegant for a five year old girl.
“I want to be a ballerina,” she told me. “Like the pretty 姐姐 on the TV”.
Sometimes I wonder if she’s now taller than I, mopping now one of her duties on her impossible list of jobs when I could no longer be there to fulfill. Tending to the grain during harvest season, making the food, caring for Grandmama, being a mother.
When I left Guizhou for Guang Dong, I struggled to leave my children behind. Guizhou provided no more opportunities for work for me. Guangdong was booming with open jobs and pay was much better. It was the only way out for us, the one path I was forced to take, a woman without a proper education or special skills, raised in the countryside and knowing nothing but baking summer sun and frozen mud on winter fields, could take to make ends meet. The hukou system for household registration prevents me from taking my children with me, because they will no longer be able to receive the free schooling and other social benefits they can get back in Guizhou where they are permanent residents. Even now, I can barely afford to support them in school back home, their lives maintained meagerly with the 1500 yuan, crisp bills fit carefully into an envelope addressed to a remote village in Guizhou I send back each month.
The weighted shuttlecock bounces from my one foot to the next in time with the cheers of the other kids in the sixth grade.
The shuttlecock shudders, unbalanced, and slips from my feet and onto the ground.
“That was so close! You almost got to forty!” Xiao Feng nudges shoulders with me. We walk together towards the main paths, pulling at backpack straps that trail behind us as we joke around, before going our separate ways as the path splits into four. She, towards the ruckus of a household that rations a small loaf of bread by slicing them, “like cake, or pie!” their mother says, and I, of one with hopeless anticipation.
The way home is long enough so that the cold seeps in through the ground and through my socks, numbing my toes, one at a time and my fingers through my coat pockets. The path is too narrow for cars to pass through safely, or even buggies or carts. In the summertime, the mud tugs at my shoes so I have to lace them up tightly less they come off and in the winter time, its frozen and dry, nourished only by the howling wind and the passing feet of few that cross over. Back when Ma still lived with us, once in a while on her days off, she’d walk along this path with me. I would try to match her footsteps as I lept, giggling, from footprint to footprint. Sometimes even now, I catch myself scouring the ground trying to find them. But now, even if I do, I don’t wish to match them. Not when the bigger footprints moves ahead, going too fast, spaced too far apart so that the little feet can no longer catch up, and after a while, lose sight of them completely. How can the little footprints choose the right path when the road eventually forks with no knowing of the right way to turn? And even though the big footprints walk forward just so they can lead the way for the little ones, would it be okay for the little footprints to one day tire out from searching for something that could never be, and stop walking?
The Lunar New Year is marked in bold black marker on the calendar. The money saved for the trip is sealed tightly in an envelope, tucked away between folded clothes and Zao Gao(date cakes) from Guang Dong packed into a cardboard box. My heart beats a little faster, my breath hitching when I think of stepping on Gui Zhous soil again. The one time of year that the company lets me return home for a couple days, along with the millions of other workers that live in major cities. Tickets are hard to get your hands on, lines curling around ticket booths and train stations starting late in the dark hours of the night and going into the morning. Last year, I was unable to purchase any tickets for the ride to Guizhou and I was unable to return home, caught in the entanglement of crazed limbs in the mob as the last train pulled away. I remembered the phone call that followed.
“Oh. That’s fine…no, no don’t worry, I know it’s really hard to get a ticket.” Ling Ling’s voice came even more quiet than usual through the other side.
“No, no, Mommy will try extra hard to come back next year. I promise.”
I convince myself the slight quaver in my voice will be heard across the line as nothing more than an erratic static or a passing gust of wind.
And so two Lunar New Years are to have past since I last saw the faces of my children and I wonder and think about how things have changed.
I remember back when I just left Guizhou, struggling to negotiate living accomodations and pay with the housekeeping company I was hired for, I would phone home every week, and speak for hours on end. Even when the phone bills that began to collect, we still went out of our ways to reach each other, only comfort we had, I in a city that I could never call home, and Ling Ling, in a home that was never truly hers without her mother. Now these calls have gotten rarer and shorter. I ask the kids about school, if they’re studying hard and doing well, if they’re eating good, if they are happy. Ling Ling’s responses to me have gotten shorter, curter, more distant. What used to be rambling on and on about her day and what she did during break times and what so and so said morphed into a couple sentences, and then two, three word answers of “not much’s” and “pretty good’s”. Surely, it must be what they call a phase, one that every teenager goes through that I won’t get to witness, but I know it will all be good as soon as I return home for the New Year.
I call them just so they know I’ll be coming home in a couple of days, and for the first time in a long time, I heard a little life in Ling Ling’s words, a hint of excitement in the tremble of her voice going up an octave, a sliver of the little girl with dreams and a life will be bigger than mine, who piroutted and lept to the music inside her head that only she could hear, one of the few things she could identify as her own,
“Okay Ma, travel safely. Come home.”
It’s already getting dark by the time I arrive back home, making my way up winding narrow paths that reach up to our house. I see Grandma crouched on a stool over the fire, smoke billowing upwards and ventilating outwards to the sky. She coughs, spitting onto the back of her wrist and wipes her hands onto her apron. I can make out them shaking through the darkness as rushed to her side to take her place. She lets out a pained breath as I let her lean on me as she makes her way to her cot by the window.
“Grandma, you’re going to hurt yourself even more! You shouldn’t have started cooking without me!” I said brows furrowed.
“I- I just wanted to get the dinner ready for you two before you get home. I can’t be useless, I must do all that I can for the both of you while I can! Now sit down and eat and don’t say a thing!” she chided.
Grandma’s health was deteriorating. Her back hindered her from walking around and doing labor heavy chores, nor even go down into the town a couple miles away without me by her side anymore. She told us that back pain just came with age, and it was really nothing to worry about, but my heart still squeezes when I notice the things she doesn’t tell me, from the constant shaking of her brittle arms and hands and the labored breathing that follows a couple of flight of stairs that forces her to retire back to her bed, her strength and health waning by the day.
But of course, that was just one of the details left out of phone calls to Ma. I wanted to tell Ma about it so we could take Grandmama to the hospital, but Grandma would never let me bring it up.
Ma’s call came, and Han Han sat, eyes staring up at my lips as I pressed the phone against my ear.
“And how is Han Han doing?” she asks, one of the many questions repeated over and over again, routinely over the phone.
“And how about school? Are you doing well?” she said again.
I told her the same lie that I’ve been saying for a while now.
“Good, my grades are pretty decent.”
“Oh that’s great! At this rate, you’ll get yourself into a college! You are already far better than I!” she exclaims, “My lack of education hindered me from doing so many other things that I could have done and now you can do!”
My grades had been slipping, test scores falling off track, veering off slowly until I could no longer pull it back into place. While my mother once sat beside me as we did simple maths and additions under candlelight, now I struggle alone, careful not to flip the pages of the textbook to fast in fear it would blow out the wavering light. But what would it accomplish to make her worry? How could she help anyway when she was so far away?
But there was one thing that makes all the lies that I told her, conjuring up a life that was better than the one that was mine worth it. Ma was coming home.
I shifted my weight from foot to foot in line at the train station. My cardboard box was heavy, and I rested it on the floor between my legs as so it doesn’t get lost. The hour hand passed the minute hand on the cold tiled walls again and again, and the sound of hollering and arguing people bounced off the walls of the room and into each other, fighting in place of people’s urgent and desperate waving fists. I was caught again in the imaginable current of people, beginning late in the night, one that had the same mind: to purchase a ticket to go home, but with bodies that bounced in a million different directions that clashed and pushed against each other, slowing the movement forwards. I tried in vain to push through and get closer to the ticket booth but the body of people grew so thick and dense that I was no longer moving at my own accord but pushed long, carried by the wave of frantic movement. When I finally got to the ticket booth, I was near tears, as I and many others clawed at the window. The clock read less than half an hour before the next train leaves to Guizhou and my heart only sped up with each passing minute.
“Sir, please, are there any available tickets for the next train to Guizhou?” I pleaded, hair wild and hands shaking,
“Um-” he looked over at his computer, “They seem to be just sold out. Can I try to put you on the next available train-?”
“When will that be?” I said, barely listening to what else he may have said.
“Two days from now”.
“No, no, no no…I need one sooner. One that leaves today. Today! To see my children!” my voice rising, high pitched as anxiety began to course through my veins.
“Mam, I can’t possibly fit you in. All the standing room tickets are taken as well.” he continued, explaining patiently.
“I haven’t seen my kids in two years and I cannot wait for another! I’ll pay extra, anything, it doesn’t matter!” I was screaming, and heads began to turn even in the raucous throng of people.
“I apologize mam, you’ll have to come back in two days. Will the next customer please step up.”
And then there was silence. The mouths of people moved without noise, feet clattered against tile floors without sound. My vision swam, either with the dizziness that began to overcome to me, or tears that sprouted, and I could barely hold my phone as I stumbled out back onto the paved sidewalks of the city that I hated but needed, and my fingers tripped over each other as I tried to dial home.
Even back then, when I was still too little to understand much, I still understood and felt the heavy weight that hung in the air and the gravity of a situation. From behind the couch cushions, I peeked around the corner as I watched our housekeeper fold away the laundry into neat piles. I see something wet splatter onto the cushion, and then another. Were those tears? Was she crying? Why was she sad? Maybe doing the laundry was tiring. After all, in the humidity that lasted even deep into Guangzhou’s winters demanded hours of waiting for clothes to dry when hung outside. Her shoulders rose and fell quickly as she tried to contain herself, juddering as they lowered. Mother told me that she was to leave yesterday to go back home to see her children for Lunar New Year but she came back in the morning, lugging a cardboard box, bursting at the corners. “That was real fast!” I thought.
All my life, I’ve been asked numerous questions.
“Which paragraphs shows the author’s inner turmoil in this novel?”
“Have you collected the vegetables for dinner tonight?”
“Is everything going well at home with Han Han and Grandmama?”
I answered some with great enthusiasm and others with limited words that dodged and avoided the truth. But there was one question that was never really asked:
“What is it that you truly want?”
In truth, I once had an answer.
“A ballerina,” I said to myself, facing the wall of my room, feet in second position. “That’s right. When I grow up, I’m going to move to the big city with Han Han, Grandmama, and Ma and I’m going to dance on TV.”
And then, I had a different answer.
“University,” I said to my friends, “I’ll work hard to get into a good school so I can get a good job and make money for my family.”
But as I grew up, my dreams didn’t grow with me. Later, I just wanted to move to the big city to be with Ma, make money alongside her. And then, it was just…just for Ma to come home for a while. I wanted to dig potatoes from the field, dirty fingertips touching hers. It didn’t matter we wouldn’t have enough to eat, enough to go to school, that was all secondary to me. I told myself to stop dreaming of ballerinas, leaping, flying under bright lights. Of living in a big house by a lake. Of buying extra snacks at the store. Because I’d easily give up everything to just have Ma sit by me, looking at my shoulder as I recited poems in Mandarin for school even when all she understood was the muffled dialect of the Guizhou mountain region.
I hung up the phone and I hear the buzz of the line cutting off.
Han Han sat on the floor playing with his plastic truck and Grandma lay asleep, busy dreaming of the food she’ll try to cook for Ma with her weakening hands, and I tried to answer the question that only I ever had for myself.
What is it that I want?
I don’t know anymore, I thought. I don’t know.